Media contributes to stigma surrounding mental illness

By: Kilian Schlemmer
It was almost like I had a contagious disease,” says Shelley McKay. “People are just really afraid of it.”


It was almost like I had a contagious disease,” says Shelley McKay. “People are just really afraid of it.”

McKay lives with post-traumatic stress disorder, which resulted from domestic violence. She worries about the misconceptions and stigma people associate with her illness, but she’s been openly sharing her story — often through the media.

McKay is involved with the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health, where she is a part of the Women for Mental Health program.

In the months following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn. last December, the debate about the media’s contribution to the stigma surrounding mental health was reignited. When asked how a reporter should truthfully cover a tragedy in which mental illness was a factor, while at the same time not contributing to stigma, McKay is quick to answer.

“Add another question,” says McKay. “Why didn’t anyone notice there was a problem with that individual? There are always symptoms. There are always signs, always.”

Alan Neal, the host of CBC’s afternoon radio show All in a Day, says the media need to do a better job addressing mental illness as a legitimate health problem.

“I just think that it is somehow seen as a different story to physical health,” says Neal. “There does tend to be this difference in how a story about a cancer patient is told, versus how a story about a mental health patient is told.”

“We don’t see scars and we don’t see the physical evidence,” says Neal. “That is the challenge that is still out there.”

According to Neal, the media need to go beyond just mentioning that mental illness was a factor in newsworthy events.

“We do stories on the tragedy without looking at the resources that are there for people,” he says. “I would hope that in any story we do, that somebody learns something. That sometimes takes the form of understanding a perspective they didn’t know before, or understanding a service that’s out there that they didn’t know was there.”

Neal says the media can help to reduce the misconceptions about mental illness by covering mental health in more positive, everyday stories.

Last November he hosted a benefit concert at the National Arts Centre, where the focus was on removing the stigma around mental illness. Musicians performed and shared the stories of their own experiences with mental illness, which according to Neal showed people a new perspective.

“You had singer-songwriters talking about their own struggles,” says Neal. “It allows you to think that yes, somebody who committed an atrocity has that condition, but so does the person who wrote this song.”

The Mental Health Commission of Canada, which is funded by Health Canada, has taken initiative in addressing the public’s attitude towards mental illness. The commission launched the Opening Minds project in 2009, which is an effort to reduce stigma in Canada.

One part of the project looked at the media’s role in shaping public opinion about mental illness. The director of Opening Minds is Micheal Pietrus, who is a former journalist and news director who worked with the CBC and CTV.

Pietrus says the media plays an important role in shaping how Canadians think about mental illness. According to Pietrus, the media have done a good job in helping important causes in the past, but there is room for improvement in the media’s coverage of mental health issues.

“The media has really done a good job in the past in terms of addressing issues like racism, or in helping get support behind other issues like cancer and AIDS,” says Pietrus. “Cancer and AIDS were highly stigmatized, and thanks to objective reporting from the media, that has largely changed.”

Pietrus says in incidents like the 2008 Greyhound bus murder, in which Vince Li stabbed and beheaded a fellow bus passenger, the media need to do more than just scratch the surface with their reporting. Li was diagnosed with schizophrenia after the incident occurred.

“What would mitigate the stigma is to point out that this is an isolated incident, and that someone with a mental illness is far more likely to be a victim than a perpetrator,” says Pietrus.

According to Pietrus, the shooting in Newtown, Conn., is an example of some reporters not doing enough research before covering the mental health aspect of the incident. After the shooting, many media outlets reported that the shooter had Asperger’s syndrome.

“If somebody had bothered to do their homework, they would find people with Asperger’s generally deal with anxiety issues and are very introverted and withdrawn. Asperger’s is not associated with violence at all,” says Pietrus. “Just drawing those kinds of conclusions without checking them out or talking with experts is a problem.”

Pietrus says he is concerned that most mental health coverage in the media is negative, and this is ultimately what contributes to stigma.

“There’s a lot of things related to mental illness that don’t get adequate or appropriate coverage,” says Pietrus. “The only time it tends to get coverage is when there’s an incident that involves violence or danger, which leaves people with the overall impression that someone with a mental illness is likely to be unpredictable or violent.”

A study done at McGill University in conjunction with the Mental Health Commission of Canada examined trends in newspaper coverage of mental illness in Canada. The study looked at more than 11,000 Canadian newspaper articles from 2005 to 2010 that had to do with mental health.

Sarah Berry, one of the authors of the study, says that while studies like this have been done in other countries, none have been done in Canada.

“There was interest from the Mental Health Commission of Canada in doing this study because we had no Canadian research on the subject,” says Berry.

Berry says Canadian researchers hoped the study would produce different results than those conducted in countries like the United States, but according to Berry, the results were essentially the same.

The study found that in 11,263 articles in which mental illness was a topic, 40 per cent had danger, violence, and criminality as a direct theme. Treatment for mental illness was discussed in 19 per cent of the articles, while 83 per cent of the articles did not include a quote from someone with a mental illness.

“The biggest problem is around criminality, violence, and mental illness,” says Berry. “It’s the strongest theme we see in this type of reporting.”

Berry says the public should keep in mind that statistics show a person with a mental illness is no more likely to commit a crime or violent act than a person without a mental illness.

Allan Hubley, an Ottawa city councillor, has a lot of experience with mental health and the media. His 15-year-old son Jamie took his own life in October of 2011. Jamie left a goodbye letter on his blog, in which he talked about his struggle with depression and homophobic bullying.

Jamie’s father says that in the aftermath of his son’s death, the media played a helpful role by getting the message about mental health out to the public.

“We received messages from people literally around the world. From all the continents of the world we heard from people,” says Hubley. “That happened because of the media.”

Hubley says that while the media can add to stigma, it can also help to erase it.

“It’s an ongoing process,” he says. “It can’t be that we only talk about it today and forget about it tomorrow.”

When Shelley McKay is asked to give a piece of advice to the media on behalf of those who live with a mental illness, she says journalists should know that a mental illness does not define a person.

“Share the humanity,” says McKay. “It’s not us and them.”

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